Designing for spaces is all about creating emotional and memorable experiences through the built environment, that positively influence the way people think, feel and act !

Smita Modi, our next pathbreaker, Design Director for the Experiential Design team at Interior Architects, ideates and creates design solutions that help communicate brand stories and help with navigation within the space.

Smita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to explore the visual design world that would merge her interests in interior and graphic design.

For students, have the courage to explore the unknown, focus on your niche, define your vision and be the best you can be at it !

Smita, what were your growing up years like?

Unlike most, I come from a rather traditional but unconventional, and a bit of a crazy family. ☺ My parents, both were the youngest of 7 or 8 children, raised in middle-class families with traditional tones as were the 1940s at home. They both lost one of their parents at a tender age which further reduced opportunities for them. Charm, courage, conviction, curiosity and hard work are some of their strong assets (which I like to believe they have passed on to me!). Their combined will power gave my father the courage to leave a well-paying job and move to a new city (Ahmedabad) wanting to set up his own business with his pregnant wife. He charmed his way through the city, ran a successful transport business for years, and people think of him fondly. My mother herself had to go to Hindi medium school and had decided that her girls would not do the same (I am the youngest of 3 girls). She would walk miles every day, first, to plead her case to the authorities for our admissions and then to drop us off to school. She had decided her girls would go to Udgam School and that’s where all three of us did our schooling. Ultimately, they always made sure my sisters and I got everything we needed to be independent in life.

If anyone knows about Udgam School, it’s great for studies, with very few extracurricular activities. My parents enrolled me in activities they were aware of and were always open to anything we brought to them. I took part in all kinds of sports at school, loved arts, reading and writing. One of my keen interests was psychology and understanding human behavior. My best friend’s parents are architects and that is how I got exposure to the field of design. I would often spend time at her place and see drawings for different building types laid out. I would listen to them discussing projects, their thoughts and process, they would explain the drawings to me. It was cool to know how they were thinking of their clients and creating spaces for them.

In all honesty, at the time, when it came to choosing what I ultimately wanted to do in life, I did not have a clear direction in my mind. Both my parents wanted me to get into different fields – mom wanted me to go for engineering or medicine and papa thought of business administration. These professions were the societal norms and what everyone was doing. Threading lightly at the risk of sounding ancient, we did not have as many resources that students have these days. When it came to applications, I was too fearful of medicine, and so that was out. I applied to business school, and decided to push ahead my artistic side by applying to CEPT. I applied to all 3 schools, got accepted in all and decided to go for interiors. To my family this was a strange decision, they had no exposure to this field, but they willingly went along with it. I still remember my father used to say, try it and if you don’t like it, do something else, it’s a big world and there is lots to do. You be happy with whatever you do. ☺ 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my Bachelors in Interior Design from School of Interior Design, CEPT. I joined The School of Art Institute of Chicago for a second Bachelors in Visual Communications. This was a rigorous program I built for myself with the help of counselors to finish my degree in 2 years.

What were some of the influences that led you to choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

Being good in arts, having exposure to design, a fear for medicine, no interest in business administration, the drive to become independent and the willingness & support of my family led me to choose my career in design. I have been fortunate to have had many people in my life who knowingly or unknowingly influenced my journey and made me the person I am today. First and foremost, will always be my parents – they gave me the courage to think outside the box, to do as I wish, to be my own person. They did not understand why I was awake at night making tiny little chairs, but they sat by my side all night, gave me hugs and brought me food – they supported me. My best friend’s parents exposed me to the value of and meaning of discussions and critiques, opened my eyes to seeing & understanding the world through the lens of design. It was not until the final years at SID (CEPT, School of Interior Design), when I met my mentor. He changed my attitude and thinking towards design and life. I worked with him as I was working on my undergraduate research. He noticed my attention to graphics and the visual world, and pushed me to explore that side of my interest more, be it in the office or outside. He was also my guide for my thesis and helped me formulate the thought of spatial narratives through visual expressions. I have always looked up to him and always will. He is the one person whose thoughts and opinions matter to me the most. I still take his advice. It was his advice and my thesis that led me to further my studies in graphics and took me to Chicago.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

This has been a bit of an organic journey with focused moves. When I joined SID, the path was clearly leading towards being an interior designer. Part of the curriculum exposed us to graphic design, screen printing, weaving, block printing and photography amongst many others. I enjoyed these and the different material workshops the most during my time there. To me these were artistic, gave me the chance to create narratives through these visual mediums. Living in India we all are familiar with the visual noise that surrounds us, it is part of our stories. My father’s office was near Teen Darwaja, an area filled with small shops selling all kinds of things from utensils to clothes to seasonal kites and firecrackers. Many of us friends would visit Madhavpura as a ritual to buy mojadis and then go to eat at the night market. Every visit there made me think of the creative ways in which the shopkeepers had imagined their tiny little shops. There was visual noise, but it somehow felt planned and rehearsed for a new event every day. They were not trained designers, they were taking their needs, associations, and translating them into spaces. When it came to choosing a thesis topic, I chose to explore this gap between formal and informal design. Some of these shops became my case studies, I would spend days with the shopkeepers and their families, trying to understand them, their rituals & needs, their likes & dislikes, they would share with me their thinking behind them creating their shops and displays and food! It was wonderful to hear their stories and see how they were translating these into their spaces! This was my first exposure to spatial design with a new filter.

As I started working with my mentor, I was exposed to all nuances of design. I was working at a multidisciplinary firm engaged with architecture, landscape, interiors, while educating the new generation. Amongst all the great projects, one is very dear to me. We were designing an event space – party plot as they used to say it back home. Though the intent was to have it multifunctional for different kinds of events, the client mainly wanted to rent it for weddings. What could be the vision for such a space? As a team we started looking into associations that people have with celebration, weddings, colors, objects and much more. We then started translating them into spatial forms that were being shaped by these associations and objects. Winding paths led into an entry portal that was flanked by giant glass bowls filled with colorful bangles, which further led the users into a walkway that was covered with sparkling lights as those at night during kite flying days, grasses and flowers spreading a sweet scent along the way. I was designing interiors but with a visual narrative. During this time, I had also started taking on some freelance graphic projects designing websites, showroom displays and was pursuing my interest in photography.

I wanted to explore the visual world, wanted to focus on some of my graphic skills, while being in the 3D world, which led me to applying for further studies in visual communications. I applied to a few schools in US, some masters and some bachelor programs. I did not care much whether it was a BFA or MFA but I wanted to make sure I got to do what I wanted to do. I chose SAIC because of the classes offered and the flexibility to modify and shape my journey at school. I took all typography classes (one of my goals), did independent studies with advisor faculty (shaping stories & narratives within an environment). With the help of my counselors I was able to audit couple of other classes that were of interest to me and got my second BFA in 2 years!

When I arrived at Chicago, doing on campus jobs while studying was driven by the financial side. I wanted to support myself independently. I was fortunate to find jobs and awesome teams at the Publication Office and Media Center where I was given the opportunity to design diverse print collaterals for the school and was exposed to the film and video side of design. 

Graduating with BFA in visual communications/graphic design leads an individual into print graphics, advertising or digital/motion graphics. But these did not interest me, I wanted to keep exploring the path that would merge my interior and graphic design backgrounds, I wanted to be in the 3D world. But I was not entirely sure of how to do it. My graduation from SAIC was during the prime recession time in the USA, and jobs were almost nonexistent. I took my first job with a small studio working with environmental graphics and signage. I had no knowledge of these fields of design (there is no school that teaches this, even today!) though I understood very quickly that these were linked to a 3D space and I knew I wanted to learn them, and so I took it on. I was fortunate to have the most amazing team members who helped me learn and grow. It is at my first job where I learnt about wayfinding and signage. As part of the team, I worked on environmental graphics and signage for varied project types and scales such as airports, museums, schools, corporate offices, trails & parks. Our teams also worked on creating user surveys and reports identifying wayfinding problems within existing buildings and delivering solutions for the same.

So, what is this work I am talking about? What do I and a bunch of others like me do? Teams across the world practicing this discipline use varied terms for this work (yeah, adding to the confusion if I may say so myself ☺) such as Branded Environments, Environments, Brand Experience, Experiential Design to name a few. So here it is –

We design branded experiences for the built environment, creating an emotional and memorable connection that captures imagination and positively influences the way people think, feel and act. These experiences are uniquely owned but socially shared. Research & strategy is an inherent part of this process leading us to discovering more about our client’s brand & culture. We take our findings to create an experience strategy for storytelling via environmental graphics, dimensional displays, sculptural installations, digital interactions, and more while providing navigation throughout the user journey with signage. Simply said – We communicate stories, activate spaces and orientate places.   

I had given myself a few years to work in the USA before wanting to return home. During this time, I heard about a design legend in my field of work and I decided I wanted to work with her. I researched and applied for a job with her studio within a global corporate firm. I pursued this for a year or so, and finally joined her team, where I stayed on for 10 years. Our team designed environmental graphics & signage for hospitals, religious & educational campuses, airports and corporate offices & campuses. We helped brands redefine their strategy & positioning, designed logos & collaterals for diverse clients. One interesting project comes to mind – we were to design a showroom experience for a client with business in interior and office products. Through our research and discovery process, we were able to formulate a strategy that not only influenced storytelling in their built spaces but also their organizational and operational pillars. Our work helped further their shared vision, created inspiring and motivating moments for their people, established a competitive advantage, and in turn attracted & retained talent within the organization. Being part of a global firm also gave me the opportunity to work on international projects, understand nuances of working in different cultures. I like to believe that my background in interiors gives me a unique perspective to graphics and signage. I have the ability to understand scale, materiality and above all think of the experience & journey beyond singular moments in space. 

A desire to be closer to my family, wanting to bring my learning closer to India, going back to a studio practice, took me to Singapore and further on to Hong Kong. Continuing to practice my work in these countries gave me the opportunity to see global versus local contexts for a company/brand. I had to learn about new cultures and the art of communicating to a community of people with a different mindset. This discipline/field of work is not as known and valued in these regions and that brought about new hurdles to cross. Here our work was on the chopping block (budget issues as they call it) all the time. The more important it became to first communicate the value of this work to the clients, to literally sell this work like they had no other choice but to bring us in and also have strategic solutions ready to get our work in the picture in some shape or format. It was frustrating but at the same time thrilling! Regional and local context became primary for storytelling in these places giving a different set of parameters to creativity. Signage was dealt without the constraints of any code requirements (unlike USA & other western countries) which opened new doors to creative expressions. A highly rewarding experience to say the least! 

I am back in the USA currently where I learned all about my field of work. I am not much of a planner. In true sense I grew up when I landed in Chicago. That was the time I had to stop being the cute little brat of the Modi family and start being an adult. I quickly realized the value of being focused, being proactive and most importantly having the courage to fail and rise again. I haven’t gotten any jobs through contacts or referrals, I did my research on next step, whom I wanted to work with/learn from, reached out to them and got the opportunity. Sometimes it took a while to get responses and sometimes it was fast, but as my parents were, I was determined and so I persevered. I have been fortunate to have been part of great teams, gain amazing experience, it has all given me an ability to introspect and think differently.  

Some key learnings I grasped early on from my parents – one needs passion, courage, hard work and faith to achieve anything. Being proactive, knowing that nothing is impossible until you try, keeping an open mind, and having the courage to look for the unknown take us a long way. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first job as an interior designer was with my mentor’s firm. He was my guide for my undergraduate research thesis, I was (still am) his ardent fan and wanted to work with his studio. So, I reached out to him and offered my services, I was an intern and finally an interior designer with them. I researched job listings and design firms after graduation in Chicago. A series of multiple job interviews and perseverance led me to finding my first job there and other jobs later in my career.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Designing graphics within the built environment, wayfinding & signage was, and still is quite unknown in the world. There are no schools that teach this, you learn it as part of your professional journey. This in itself, is the biggest challenge everyone in my shoes faces.

Challenge 1: Having no experience in designing graphics for the built environment and signage, the challenge was to research and learn quickly. At my first job, I was the only one who did not have enough knowledge about this when I joined. I put in efforts to research & learn, practice drawing skills in illustrator, and learned other software that could help me in this field. I spent my own time in evenings to finesse my skills, practice and pick up speed of work. I reached out to colleagues at work and my supervisors to ask questions and was not shy to ask for help. I showed them an eagerness to learn, and they held my hand as I grew.

Challenge 2: Each job involves financials & operations, not my favorite, and something I avoided in my early days of career. It’s quite funny that all my teams refer to me as a jack of all trades. I can tackle a lot of different kinds of tasks/things in my field. But in all honesty, I do not like dealing with financials/accounts all day and that’s why I paved my way to growing on the design leadership path. Partially I think it is boring and partially it’s not my strength. (I think for this one I am like papa, he was not good with it either! ☺) Though as I moved ahead in my career, I realized that I need to get into it a little bit more. There was a lot to learn as part of team meetings and project meetings, but the most important way for me was to learn from project managers who dealt with it all day. So, I reached out and learned the fundamentals from them. And now I can proudly say that I have developed my own methods to be involved, give insight and problem solve if needed. I do not shy away from it. ☺

Challenge 3: As all other businesses, there is a marketing/sales side of things to our work also. We have to pitch ourselves/respond to an RFI and go through an interview to win a project. This field is not as known to people and to top that, the few firms in the world who practice this work have different names for it. For a client it is difficult to understand the nuances of terminology and so how do we differentiate ourselves from others in the client’s eyes? Our design and concept help us deliver that but there are times when we are not given that opportunity and it’s all about how we talk about ourselves and the value we bring to our process/differentiate ourselves/market ourselves in the interview. Research into our competitors, how they are talking about topics, keeping an eye on the market pulse is key. Reaching out to colleagues, playing off scenarios with friends helps get a perspective and get better at these aspects. This is a journey that is on and keeps evolving.

Challenge 4: Everyone knows what it means to be working in a specific field of medicine, engineering, architecture and many other professions. But no one knows what branded environments (or this field’s other names) means. So then when asked, what do you tell people about what you do. I have tried many ways, none of them successful in entirety but close. The experiment is still on, stay tuned! 

Where do you work now? Can you talk about your work in Experiential Design?

I currently work in Boston, USA. I am Design Director for the Experiential Design team at Interior Architects, an interior design firm. Each workday is different, on some days I collaborate with project design teams made up of project managers, designers and other design directors. 

I work with my team to ideate and create design solutions that help communicate brand stories and help with navigation with the space. A part of my time goes in management of the team, as well as to ensuring the project is running within the financial constraints established and on schedule. Another part of work goes into mentoring and nurturing team members, listening and helping them grow in their career path. Another part of work involves bringing in new business opportunities, promoting and talking about our work externally. I am also engaged in educational initiatives and from time to time, I participate in design skits for various schools and universities.

What are the skills needed for your role? How did you acquire them?

Design, management and business skills are needed for similar roles. It is important to enjoy research, strategy and most of all design! Other skills such as problem-solving skills, being a team player and willingness to handle some management and financial side of things go a long way. Since this field of work is varied, a degree in design is a must, architecture, interior design, graphic design, industrial & product design, are the most sought-after fields.

What do you love most about your job? 

I love every aspect of being a designer! As everyone says I am a people person. I love interacting with people, getting to know what brings joy to them, understanding behaviour, making friends with clients and vendors alike. I truly enjoy the unknowns at the beginning of the project, researching and brainstorming as a team. Translating people & company cultures to tangible moments in the built spaces is truly a rewarding experience. Exploring ideas, sketching and engaging with clients and fabricators alike brings joy to the whole process. Being a designer, I can understand and respond to human behaviour and also mold it. Speaking about and shedding light on the value of the work we do, promoting this field of work is also dear to my heart. 

How does your work benefit society? 

One of the unique charms of being a designer, especially in today’s times that is juxtaposed with fluid experiences & diverse people, is that I get a chance to shape and mold how people will feel & behave, to challenge and provide intriguing experiences through built environments. ‘The cherry on the top’ is the sense of joy & pride I get when I see our clients or users smile, the twinkle in their eyes on seeing our drawings & mockups, or them taking a stroll in the experience that I created. That to me, is a moment of power. Power of design & power of being a designer.

If you enjoy creating things, like research, engaging with people and helping them achieve their dreams and aspirations, this is the field for you!

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There are a couple that are memorable for different reasons. 

In Chicago, working on a project for a Biotech firm, we were tasked with implementing their existing signage system for one of their new buildings. As part of our first client meeting we showed them some studies and thought starters that in turn engaged and enthused them so much that our task was changed to ‘designing a new signage system’. This is a testament to building a client relationship and trying to bring value to this field of work. Had we not shown them the opportunities, they would not have known and wanted a change. Furthermore, our new signage system was then implemented across 88 buildings on the campus. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

–  Be passionate. Whatever path you take, take it because you enjoy it and not because it is a norm or what others are doing or may say if you do, or do not follow the norm.

–  Be Curious. There is never an end to learning or too much to learn. Always be ready to learn, grow and unlearn as part of meeting new people, or new experiences.

–  Be Brave. Have the courage to ask a question, reach out to others, those who know more but also those who do not. Have the courage to explore the unknown, fall along the way and rise again!

–  Be Real. Always be humble and genuine when interacting with people and in actions. It is important to be such that people can depend on you in order to build trusting learning relationships. 

Future Plans?

Not big on planning but let’s see.. I have recently moved to Boston. Firstly, I am hoping to explore the city, settle in and take in this beautiful city! I am curious about the digital world, and juxtaposing these in the built environment. Am excited to see where I will take this curiosity. I am keen to engage in design education – bring this world of design to schools and engage with the Boston community, shed more light to this practice of work. Keep chugging along!